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There is now less than a month until the United States will elect their next President. In the past 8 years President Bush has gone out of his way to reject, suppress, and generally ignore action on climate change issues. During Bush’s years in office however, climate change has slowly risen on the national and international agenda, which has to be a good thing.

Everyone has already forgotten about Bush, and he has long since stopped pretending to be worried about climate change, saying ‘Goodbye from the worlds biggest polluter’ to the other G8 leaders back in July, with a nice big grin on his face.

Much is often made of the perceived necessity for the US to take a lead by example on climate change, and encourage the rest of the world to follow suit. This is a view often emphasised by Americans themselves (see Jonathon Porritt’s recent review of Thomas L. Friedman’s new book) but as the world collectively realises what we may be facing, leadership from the United States becomes less and less relevant. The scenes in Bali last December may have been a wake-up call to this effect, as US representatives were told to ‘…..get out of the way’ of new international negotiations, to cheers from representatives from the majority of nations present.

However, the position of the US is undoubtedly important, if not in persuading other nations to act, then purely in terms of reducing their own contribution to global warming as one of the worlds largest polluters. With this in mind, anyone who realises the importance of minimising climate change will be carefully examining the environmental ideals of both Presidential candidates.

Realclimate recently examined what the vice-presidential candidates said in their televised debate about climate change (see here), with fairly predictable results. Of the two candidates, the Republican John McCain is, unsurprisingly, the one who’s less bothered about climate change. His running mate Sarah Palin has repeatedly stated that she isn’t sure that climate change is being caused by humans, but she doesn’t think the cause is important – the response to it is the important bit. As Realclimate (and countless others) point out – the cause is VERY important if you want to know how to tackle the problem.

McCain favours a cap and trade system, and wants to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050, but isn’t going to force small businesses to be included in this. Tellingly, McCain’s page of plans for global warming finish with an emphasis on ‘adaptation’. He’s going to need a much larger section on that bit if he gets elected.

In comparison, Barack Obama seems to be a long way ahead, at least in terms of rhetoric. According to his website, Barack Obama ‘supports implementation of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.’. However, his running mate, Joe Biden, recently highlighted their belief in ‘clean coal’ technology and the role it can play in their carbon reduction plans – a technology that is untested and extremely unlikely to deliver ‘clean’ energy generation. The general picture that the Democrats have been painting is one that says “We know we need to have at least an 80% reduction by 2050, but there’s no way we’ll get elected if we spell out what that means in terms of changes within the country.” It could also be interpreted as “We need an 80% reduction by 2050. Help! How the hell do we do that!”.

It goes without saying that whoever gets elected will be judged on what they actually deliver and not what they have pledged to do. Unfortunately, only the most optimistic observers will be expecting the new president to begin the groundbreaking green revolution now required to restrain global warming below catastrophic levels.

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Climate Camp 2008

This coming week, a few thousand people will be setting up the third annual Climate Camp, at Kingsnorth in Kent, to protest against the building of a new coal-fired power station in the near future.

The Climate Camp has already been set up in a field near Kingsnorth power station, and will be there all week, culminating in a day of direct action attempting to prevent the power station from functioning on the Saturday. The direct action will be what hits the headlines, for obvious reasons. You can expect lots of pictures of people with dreadlocks and angel-wings being dragged around by police in the papers on Sunday morning.

You can also expect to hear very little about the rest of the climate camp. Over the week around 200 workshops and talks will be taking place on all kinds of topics related to climate change. It will use energy produced using solar panels brought to the site, and all are welcome. Visitors and speakers at the camp will include Caroline Lucas MEP, George Monbiot, and Chris Davies MP, who wrote an article in The Guardian recently explaining why he is going to the camp.

So what’s it all about? The present Kingsnorth Power station needs to be replaced. A proposal by E.On to build a new coal-powered station was given the go-ahead by Medway council in January, leaving the decision of whether to build it to the Government.

Coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel, so when we should be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions, and the Government is including a planned 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, it’s suicide. Especially as this is the first of seven coal-powered stations planned by the Government.

It’s at this point that spokespersons from E.On start talking about carbon capture and storage (CSS). The idea’s simple – grab the carbon before it gets into the atmosphere and put it somewhere where it won’t cause global warming. Like underground. And it’s a good idea. It could reduce the carbon emissions from the new power plant by up to 90%.

And it’s at this point that practical people respond by reminding everyone that CCS isn’t yet available. The Government would like to have a demonstration power plant up and running by 2014 (two years after Kingsnorth will be ready), but they expect that this demonstration will take 15 years. 2029 then. Too little, far too late, to avoid catastrophic climate change. (None of this matters, because as it stands the new Kingsnorth power station may not be made ‘CCS ready’ anyway .

And that is where the arguments grind to a halt. The state of knowledge about CCS technology prevents it from going any further. If we knew that every new coal power plant was going to have CCS technology, and that this would reduce the emissions by 90%, then we would have a proper debate. Assuming, of course, that this could happen immediately.

But the sad fact is that we don’t have time to mess around. Estimations of when we could pass the point of no return with climate change vary wildly. This week the one hundred month campaign was launched, based on research saying that there are 100 months ‘to save the planet’, whereas James Hansen is telling us that we are already past the dangerous level of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to start reducing it, instead of just reducing the rate of increase.

So which is it? Well it doesn’t really matter. What we need to do is reduce our emissions to zero, and do it as quickly as possible.

I expect a few of the people at this years climate camp to be anarchist ‘greens’, that want to bring down society, overthrow the Government, and go back to living in tents and caves. Newspapers will refer to people at the camp as ‘environmental protestors’ or something similar, and most will be just that. But the majority of people at the camp are just concerned about the future of the human race, and the millions, if not billions, which will starve or die through global warming in the future. I’m not going to the camp because I want to save polar bears or ice caps. I want to save people.

Let’s look at what happened in the last week or so.
On 4th July, The Guardian obtained an internal report from the World Bank estimating that biofuels have caused world food prices to rise by 75% (it seems I was far too optimistic on that previously).

On 5th July Gordon Brown gave an interview to The Guardian, in which he said he was going to tell the G8 nations that the problems of climate change and international development should not be sidelined by the credit crunch.

On the 7th July he launched a campaign to drastically reduce food waste in the UK, in an attempt to combat the escalating world food prices.
The very same day, the Government announced that they will be continuing with the requirement to have 2.5% biofuel in all transport fuel, although the planned percentage increases over the coming years will be reduced.

So let’s just recap. We are told to stop wasting our food on the grounds that we need to do everything possible to restrict food price increases, and on the same day we are told biofuels are going to continue to be in our fuel for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that they cause food price escalation, and starve millions.

A few days later, after the widely reported multiple-course lunches at the G8 summit, the issue of climate change seems to have passed the Leaders’ lips. Maybe between courses 6 and 7? It can’t have taken much longer than that, because they made minimal progress. Not even that.

The attempted 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 agreed by the G8 is the only thing that hit the headlines. The UK Government is already supposed to be thinking about a 60% cut by 2050 (in the Climate Bill which seems to have been lost without trace – maybe they left it in a taxi, or on a train). It’s commonly accepted now that an 80% cut is what we really need, with lots of educated voices saying 90% or 100% cuts are required, if not more.

The G8 announcement was so lame that even the head Economist of the Governments own Carbon Trust said it was crap – “an abrogation of responsibility” , as well as a whole host of the usual groups like Greenpeace etc. stating the obvious about it being a great let-down.

So it seems that, yet again, large international talks have come and gone, and all it that came of it was that our mighty world leaders agreed that something should probably be done sometime. But not any time soon, and certainly not with scientifically determined goals.

In the meantime, the Met Office tells us that spring is now arriving 6 days early in the UK , and satellites are showing that the vast Wilkins ice shelf in the Antarctic is collapsing. In winter.

Flying low

Let’s talk about planes. Pretty cool things aren’t they. Big hunks of metal that somehow fly around in the sky and can take us from place to place very quickly.

It won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t like planes much, and I try very hard to avoid using them where possible. The responses that I get to this can be annoying (if I’m in a particularly bad mood), amusing, but generally not all that surprising. “The plane’s going anyway, you might as well get on it”, “Green consumerism won’t save the world” etc. etc.

Let’s think about that for a minute. Yes, the plane is going anyway. If I never take another flight for the rest of my life there will be plenty of people to take my place. Numbers of flights will increase dramatically, it will contribute to the drastic rise in temperatures worldwide, and people will die as a result. So if it’s going to happen anyway, why bother? There are two reasons.

Firstly, I will hate myself for it. It’s a very selfish reason, but it’s true. I will feel bad. It will piss me off that I did it, knowing that I am ultimately contributing to a humanitarian disaster, however small this contribution may be.

Secondly, it has an effect on other people. It engages people in the issue. It provokes a response, even if that response is negative. My seemingly drastic action might bring someone to realise what a big problem we face.It might even make them think twice when they are next flying to Paris instead of going on the train. It might only make them think “What a self-righteous little twat!”, but if I stick to my guns, at least they will take me seriously.

So, for this second reason, I will be having an effect. A very small effect, but an effect nonetheless. And what if 10%, or 20% or 50% of people decided to do the same? Then obviously, there would be a big effect. Planes aren’t going to fly around empty (well some might – see here) – it isn’t profitable, and if there isn’t demand, then there won’t be supply either.

It might be obvious, but it’s not the plane I don’t like. It’s the way the plane works. Pumping out lots of gasses that are heating up the globe. If we could find a way of getting from London to New York in a few hours without contributing to our own demise then I’d be the first on the plane! I’d save up and get a private jet! But we can’t (see here), and unless by some miracle that happens you won’t see me on many more planes.

Notice that I haven’t at any point said that I will never fly again. Strong-willed though I am, and annoying though it will be, I know I will get on a plane sometime in the next few years. It would be unrealistic to expect the world to stop flying altogether. But how about getting rid of needless short-haul flights? A huge percentage of flights from the UK could easily be made by other, less destructive, means.

The mentality surrounding the issue is slowly changing. It used to be very difficult to admit to people that I didn’t want to fly. It would prompt an uncomfortable pause in the conversation, followed by comments of a veiled pity. A kind of patronising “Oh don’t worry, you’re young and naïve. You’ll understand that you can’t win in the end” type conversation. This sometimes still happens. But more often now the pity and disbelief is replaced by an often false admiration. “Well done you” or sometimes, “If only we could all do that”. It’s now commonly sociably acceptable to appreciate the problem, but it is not yet commonly sociably acceptable to actually do anything about it.

This mentality is a microcosm of the global warming problem itself. The same goes for coal power and driving around in unnecessarily polluting vehicles. We need to stop treating it as something that wacky ‘greens’ or ‘environmentalists’ do, and realise that it’s something that is practical, and that if we don’t do it then we are just hastening our own demise.

I don’t expect people to stop flying. What I do expect, is that people who fly have thought about whether they could use an alternative, or if their trip is more important than the consequences of their actions. It’s not a lot to ask.

At the next election are you going to vote? If you are – then why? Why bother?! It won’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things.

If you’re not, then why not? Is it because you don’t believe you could change anything? Well you can. And you should.

Last week ‘The Reverend’ Tony Blair announced that he had been working with a group of climate change experts since he left office, and that he thinks the problem is extremely urgent (1). He said that failing to act on climate change “would be deeply and unforgivably irresponsible” and that the UN is “the right forum to reach the global agreement” . He then popped off to Japan, India and China to have a little chat with them about it all.

It’s not the only problem Blair is trying to help solve at the moment – he’s also Middle East Peace Envoy on behalf of the US, Russia, UN and EU, advisor to the insurer Zurich and investment bank JP Morgan (who will probably be wanting all the advice they can get at the moment), and seminar speaker on “faith and globalisation” at Yale University (2,3). Not to mention trying to encourage investment into Rwanda (2).

Oh, and there is always the ‘Tony Blair Faith Foundation’ that will be launched later in the year (3). I can’t wait! I saw someone in Westminster the other day with a t-shirt saying “WWBD? (What Would Blair Do?)” Well, judging by his recent actions he would probably either a) invade, or b) save. Both while smiling.

You can imagine the conversation at the Reverend’s breakfast table.
Cherie – “Can you pick the kids up tonight? I’m going to be a bit busy.”
Tony – “No sorry, solving Middle East crisis tonight.”
Cherie – “How about tomorrow?”
Tony – “Nope, sorry. Wednesday is Rwanda night with the boys.”
Cherie – “How about we go away this weekend to relax?”
Tony – “Cherie, I’ve told you before, I save the world at weekends! Saturday is climate change and Sunday is a day of rest, unless God has a job for me.”

The Reverend’s climate change record isn’t as bad as Mr.Brown’s, but then that’s not really saying much is it. Blair is generally recognised for helping to get climate change the attention it deserves in the international political arena, and that is one thing he seems to be good at. He will be working to his strengths with this trip, doing what he does best – smiling from ear to ear and speaking with……..as……..many……..pauses…….as…….humanly…….possible…..to try and add sincerity to what he is saying.

The only problem in Blair’s climate mission seems to be the target. He said that “A 50% cut by 2050 has to be a central component”, but anyone who listens to discussions of emissions targets will know that isn’t enough. Even Mr. Brown has admitted that the climate change bill may have to be tightened to 80% by 2050, and many people believe that cuts of 90% or more may be required to avoid the worst of the catastrophes in the pipeline. Hopefully Mr.Blair’s tactic is to get everyone on board and working towards 50% and then try and persuade them that actually it will need to be more at a later date. It would be a much harder sell if he was pushing for 80% or more straight away.

But leaving the Blair’s plans aside for a moment, there was precious little cause for optimism this week in the news. The World Glacier Monitoring Service announced that glaciers around the world had record levels of ice loss in 2006 (4) and aerospace giant EADS announced that they are planning a commercial plane to take space tourists up 100km from Earth (and expect demand to be enough to warrant building 10 of them a year) (5). I’m guessing they won’t be solar powered. How can we pretend we are concerned about climate change when plans like that are still being drawn up?

Not to mention the announcement from Shell this week that it is going into Canadian tar sands in a big way to try and aid it’s falling oil production (6). Extracting oil from tar sands produces even more carbon dioxide than petroleum extraction, and as the oil giants invest heavily in this method, the chances of us avoiding the very worst effects of climate change slip further from our grasp.

The Reverend is well aware of the challenge we face. “If the average person in the US is, say, to emit per capita, one-tenth of what they do today and those in the UK or Japan one-fifth, we’re not talking of adjustment, we’re talking about a revolution.” He said, speaking in Japan.

If Mr. Blair can help to get the international agreements and targets that are desperately needed then that would be a great thing. Let’s face it, we need all the help we can get.

References
1. ‘Blair to lead campaign on climate change’ – Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, 14th March 2008.
2. ‘Blair wants ‘climate revolution’’ – bbc.co.uk, 15th March 2008.
3. ‘Former British Prime Minister Blair to Teach at Yale’ – Yale University News Release, March 7th 2008.
4. ‘Glacier ice loss at record levels’ – Geoffrey Lean, The Independent Online, 16th March 2008.
5. ‘Space planes ‘to meet big demand’’ – Jonathan Amos, bbc.co.uk, 17th March 2008.
6. ‘Shell pushes into Canadian tar sands to arrest falling production’ – Danny Fortson, The Independent, 18th March 2008.

A Green Budget?

Mr. Darling’s first budget was this week, and days before he announced it there was lots of speculation about a big green, tree-hugging, hippie-loving budget coming our way. Reading the section on these issues entitled “An Environmentally Sustainable World”, I think the verdict from Environmentalists is likely to be ‘Improving, but could do a lot better’.

The first announcements are car taxes. From next year it’s going to cost you £425 to tax your car if it emits more than 255g CO2 per kilometer, and from 2010 the ‘most polluting cars’ will have a first-year rate of £950. There will be reductions in tax for cars emitting 150g CO2 per km or less and discounts for ‘alternatively fuelled cars’(1).

Unfortunately, I doubt this will be enough to stop people from buying heavily polluting cars, but it might add a small amount of pressure on car manufacturers too, which has to be a good thing. It’s hardly the £2000 tax that had been speculated in the press(2) – if these taxes increased year-on-year then I think we might be getting somewhere – but it’s a start.

Next up was tax on fuel. It is increasing above inflation, which is going to piss a lot of people off, but is likely to have a pretty minimal effect on emissions on its own, if any. People need to get from A to B, and if their only option is a crappy, expensive bus or an unreliable, expensive train, then they are going to pay for petrol no matter how much it costs.

Which brings us on to public transport. If you can find it. Of the 20 pages in the chapter, six lines of text are given to public transport. Am I the only one that finds that a bit alarming? Apparently the Secretary of State for Transport will soon publish a document on ‘the reform of bus subsidy’ to include carbon emissions and technology proposals. Something tells me it’s not going to exactly revolutionise our public transport, but we’ll see.

And then there comes the dreaded B word. Biofuels. You can almost hear the collective sigh from the environmentalists across the nation (see previous post on biofuels).

But hold on, this may not be as bad as it first appears. Although the Government is still planning on using biofuels as a big part of it’s climate change strategy, there is going to be a study of the “wider economic and environmental impacts” and the Chancellor and several other senior Government figures have written to the EU to outline what they believe should be the principles governing EU policies on biofuels. These include ‘robust sustainability standards’, making sure they are reducing emissions, and ensuring they take into account the indirect effects of biofuels.

If this rhetoric is not followed up with strictly controlled regulation of biofuels sourcing and use, then we are in for big trouble. But if these are put in place to make sure they are reducing overall emissions and not causing an escalation of food prices etc. then it might be a small help.

There is lots of reiteration of general Government policies – carbon pricing, investing in new technologies etc. but the only real news is that all non-domestic buildings should be zero-carbon by 2019 – adding to the previous announcement that all new homes should be zero-carbon by 2016. (This is a great start, but I suspect the Government hasn’t even begun to think about the huge change and investment required for this to actually happen.)

And of course there is always the news that there will be Government intervention if retailers don’t do something about plastic bags – which, although undeniably a good thing, is not going to have a significant effect on global warming.

If you thought that sounded vaguely encouraging, think again. The next sections on aviation and energy supply are as lame as you would expect from a Government that is planning to expand airports and build lots of new coal power plants. No wonder Charles Clarke (former Home Secretary) thinks that the Governments action on climate change is embarrassing(3).

The ‘greenest’ budget yet? Probably. But future budgets will need to be a lot better than this unless we want Downing Street to be underwater in the future.

References
1. Budget 2008, Chapter 6 – “An Environmentally Sustainable World”. This can be found here.
2. Budget to target cars with new taxes – Ben Russell,The Independent Online, 10th March 2008.
3. Clarke attacks Brown’s ’embarrassing’ green policies – Hélène Mulholland, The Guardian Online, 6th March 2008.

Heathrow

The public consultation on the proposed expansion to Heathrow Airport is over. This week has seen climate change activists from Greenpeace climbing a plane(1) and some from Plane Stupid on the roof of the Houses of Parliament(2) to protest at the expansion, and the way the Government has dealt with consultation on it. We knew from the start that it wasn’t going to be much of a consultation at all(3). More of a statement of intent.

The intent is to add a third runway of 2.2km, and ‘associated passenger terminal facilities’ which would enable a 50% increase in traffic in the airport (4).

According to the summary document, the expansion plans have been “set in the context of [the Governments] wider aviation policies”. These include seeking to “reduce and minimise the impacts of airports on those who live nearby and on the natural environment.”(4).

Let’s just think about that for a minute. They are going to make a massive expansion to Heathrow, and yet it’s been set in a context of reducing impacts of airports. How does that work then? I can only assume that before they remembered the inconvenient ‘context’ they were going to bulldoze many more than the estimated 700 homes that are going to have to be demolished (4).

The Department of Transport have clearly tried to launch an assault of reassurance on the main opposing body – people who realise that building a new runway is a disastrous and absurd idea when we are staring devastating climate change in the face. The resulting writing in the document is hilarious and pathetic.

Part one of the Summary states that “We believe that a well-designed, open, international emissions trading regime for aviation is still the best way of ensuring that the aviation sector plays its part in tackling climate change.” Well okay, but I believe that the best way of ensuring that would be not building any more airports, and looking instead at the irresponsible use of planes to fly between Manchester and London more than 30 times a day, or anywhere else that should be reached by train. That would seem to make a lot more sense, in economic terms too, but maybe that’s just me.

It goes on to say that emissions trading would mean that “aviation emissions would effectively be capped at the average level over the period 2004 to 2006.” This would mean that “airlines would have to pay for the equivalent emissions reductions in other sectors.” Apparently they “continue to explore and promote other measures including carbon offsetting schemes.”

Well as I see it, paying for emissions reductions in other sectors is offsetting. Is exploring carbon offsetting schemes supposed to reassure me? Carbon offsetting a few hundred thousand flights a year? Have they asked the Department for the Environment how they could go about doing that? Maybe they are planning on making France into one big forest? I’ll draw up a consultation document to send to the French………….

These people just don’t get it do they. If airlines are going to pay for emissions cuts in other sectors then those magical other sectors are going to have to reduce their emissions even more than they were going to need to anyway. And that ain’t going to be easy. With their logic, what will happen in the end will be lots of the big powerful important sectors paying the little rubbish ones to reduce their emissions. Before they know it they’ll have to reduce their emissions 100, 200 or 300%.

If these were absolutely essential flights we are talking about then some people might forgive the Government for this approach. But so many of them are short-haul flights to places that can easily be reached by other means, – surely getting rid of those should be the first priority, and then think about trading or offsetting or whatever.

The telling sentence of the whole consultation document is the following – “Our work shows that a third runway at Heathrow would bring net economic benefits of around £5bn in net present value terms, even after taking into account of climate change and noise costs.”

Hooray! We’ll be up to our necks in floods and a few local residents will be deaf and homeless, but it’s okay because think of the money! Woohoo! (This money would be over 70 years by the way – and the economic reasoning behind it has been branded ‘flawed and misleading’ by a report from an independent research and consultancy firm, CE Delft (5).)

It’s the last bit that gets me. “….even after taking into account of climate change and noise costs.” You can’t figure climate change into an economical calculation and then forget about it. A financial cost of climate change is not the only cost. There are lives at stake here.

Unfortunately the Government is not adverse to including human lives as part of the economic balance sheet – as pointed out by George Monbiot discussing the Stern Report (the report which the Government has a habit of trying to use as it’s get-out-of-jail-free card whenever it can – including in this consultation document)(6).

The UK’s fastest growing source of emissions is aviation. Is the Government really trying to tell us that Heathrow is going to be the exception to their professed green credentials? Are they really saying this is the only carbon-generating idea they are going to use our money for, and that apart from this they are going to be little angels? Pull the other one. What about coal powered energy generation that they are just about to revitalise? Are we going to offset that too?

We need to do everything we can to stop this runway being built. The protests this week were just the start.

References
1. ‘Climate campaigners bring peaceful protest to Heathrow’ – Greenpeace, 25th February 2008.
2. ‘Climate campaigners hang ‘NO 3rd RUNWAY’ banner before PMQs’ – Plane Stupid, 27th February 2008.
3. ‘Legal action threatened over ‘sham’ Heathrow consultation’ – The Independent Online, 23rd November 2007.
4. ‘Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport – Summary’ – Department for Transport. 27th February 2008.
5. ‘The Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow is “flawed and misleading”’ – HACAN ClearSkies.
6. ‘An exchange of souls’ – George Monbiot, 19th February 2008.